The God Who Forgives

Psalm 51

The Reverend Bryn MacPhail / December 5, 2004


            Very few of us, if any at all, want to come to church to hear about how bad we are. If we are going to get up early, and if we are going to set aside our household responsibilities in order to come to this house of worship, we want to hear good news, not bad news.


            It is my desire, and intention, this morning to bring you the best kind of news. However, as is often the case, the good news is related to some bad news.


            The bad news is that we often speak and act in a manner that is offensive to God. The bad news is that the inclinations of our heart are not often pure. The bad news is that, even in our efforts to do good, we fall short of God’s standard of goodness. For this reason, we stand in need of God’s forgiveness.


            In speaking this morning about forgiveness, we need to make a distinction between justifying forgiveness and the forgiveness that we require on a daily basis. Because, as we examine Psalm 51, we find that it is the latter that is being pursued.


            Justifying forgiveness is that once and for all forgiveness that we receive when we believe upon the Lord Jesus Christ. As the hymn writer well puts it: My sin, not in part, but the whole, is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more; praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul! The apostle Paul explains the great benefit of justifying forgiveness when he declares: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1).


            Before believing in Christ, our relation to God was like that of a criminal standing before a judge. But because of what Christ has done, our status has changed. The threat of condemnation no longer looms, and we now relate to God as a child relates to their father (Rom. 8:15).


            Because of this new status, our ongoing struggle with sin does not threaten the permanence of our relationship with God. Our ongoing struggle with sin does, however, threaten the health of our relationship with God.


By analogy, those of you who have parented teenagers can relate to this principle. Your son, or daughter, has a curfew of 10 PM, but they don’t return home until 2 AM. I doubt very much that your response to them is to say, ‘Because you have thoughtlessly disregarded our household rules, I am no longer willing to be your parent.’ No, you don’t say that. Perhaps, you don’t say anything—you just give them that look and you go to bed.


Your child’s transgression has not altered their status as your child, but their behaviour has disrupted the health of your relationship with them. And so it is when we sin against God. Our sin grieves our Heavenly Father, and disrupts the sweetness of our fellowship with Him.


King David understood this, and his response to this disrupted fellowship is recorded for our edification in Psalm 51. Granted, David’s offenses are of a particularly heinous nature, and yet, I reckon that his response to these offenses is no less relevant for us as we seek to address our own particular sins.


David had sinned grossly by committing adultery with Bathsheba, and then he compounded that sin by manipulating his army’s battle plan in order to ensure that her husband, Uriah, would be killed. It was only after the prophet Nathan confronted him, that David turned to God, to seek His forgiveness.


            Notice, first, the basis of David’s appeal to God. David does not say, ‘Lord, You know that this was out of character for me and that I am not normally inclined to sin in this way.’ David does not make excuses for his behaviour. Instead, David simply appeals to God’s mercy:


Be gracious to me, O God, according to Thy lovingkindess; according to the greatness of Thy compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. (Ps. 51:1,2)


In this instance, David does not ask God for fairness, or justice; David does not want ‘what’s coming to him’. No, David needs mercy, and so he appeals to God’s merciful character.


            We should also be careful to note a few things from David’s self-diagnosis. As I study Psalm 51, I am inclined to believe that David had more on his mind than simply the incident with Bathsheba. I infer this because David employs three different Hebrew words when describing his offenses against God. In the first two verses, David references his “transgressions”, his “iniquity”, and his “sin”.


            The word for transgression (pesha), normally refers to crossing a forbidden boundary. Of the three words used by David, transgression best describes the nature of his offense with Bathsheba. Secondly, David also makes reference to his iniquity (awon)—a word which means ‘perversion’. The word is repeated in verse 5 and has reference to our depraved nature, and our subsequent depraved inclinations.


The third word David uses is the word sin (chattah), which means, ‘missing the mark’. The idea here is that our actions must meet God’s perfect standard. This is why we can commit sin even while we are attempting to do something normally regarded as positive. If our actions are not born out of pure motivations and a genuine love for God, our actions miss the mark of God’s standard and are regarded by Him as sin.


I hope this distinction helps us in our own self-diagnosis. Because, what I suspect is the case for most of us is that we tend to focus our energy on limiting our transgressions. Our efforts tend to be directed towards preventing our words and actions from crossing acceptable boundaries.


What often remains untreated, however, are the underlying inclinations for our transgressions. That is, we sometimes neglect to properly address the problem of our iniquity.


In addition, many of us neglect to address the fact that we consistently miss God’s perfect mark with our actions, and we console ourselves with the fact that everyone is missing the mark. We use phrases like, ‘Nobody’s perfect’ and ‘I’m only human’ to abate the fact that we have not acted in full accord with God’s will. The Bible calls this sin.


We should not console our self with the fact that every human being sins daily. But we can console our self with this fact: We worship a God who is eager to forgive. The author of Psalm 130 declares, “If Thou, Lord, shouldst mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with Thee” (Ps. 130:3,4).


This is the good news that I promised you from the outset; God is eager to forgive your sins daily. Again, I am speaking here, not of justifying forgiveness, but rather, I am speaking about the ongoing forgiveness that is necessary to preserve the health of our relationship with our Father in Heaven.


We should also be careful to note, that there are two conditions for securing this ongoing forgiveness. Obtaining God’s forgiveness is not an automatic thing. If our fellowship with God has been hampered by sin, there remains something for the believer to do in order to restore this fellowship. In order to secure God’s ongoing forgiveness we must come before God in humble confession.


The apostle John declares this in the opening of his first epistle; he writes, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1Jn. 1:9).


And, if we ask, ‘How are we to do this? How are we to confess our sins?’, I would recommend David’s prayer in Psalm 51 as a model for humble confession. For in David’s prayer you hear, not only his repulsion for his sin, but you also hear his longing for fellowship with God:


Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.

Cast me not away from Thy presence, and take not Thy Holy Spirit from me.

Restore unto me the joy of Thy salvation, and sustain me with a willing spirit. (Ps. 51:10-12)


If we are to experience the sweetness of fellowship with God, it will be necessary for us to secure God’s forgiveness. And, in order for us to secure God’s forgiveness we must be diligent to bow before Him in humble confession.


            There remains one more thing for the believer to do. If we are to receive God’s forgiveness for our sins, we must be sure to forgive those who have sinned against us. For me, and perhaps for some of you, this is no easy condition to meet.


            When confronted by this condition, we become acutely aware of how difficult our pursuit of daily forgiveness actually is. Charles Williams has said of the Lord’s Prayer, ‘No word in English carries a greater possibility of terror than the little word ‘as’ in that clause (‘forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us’)’. Charles Spurgeon writes, ‘Unless you have forgiven others, you read your own death-warrant when you repeat the Lord’s Prayer.’


            Such statements are entirely congruent with the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, who said: “If you do not forgive men (their sins), then your (Heavenly) Father will not forgive your sins” (Mt. 6:15).


            In order for us to properly meet this condition, we must make sure that we properly understand this condition. Forgiveness is no mere pardon—it is more.


To pardon is to excuse an offense; when we pardon another we promise not to avenge an offense. God does more than pardon us when He forgives our sins. When God forgives He also restores the flow of His unrestrained love for us. When God forgives, He treats us as if the offense had never been committed.


            And this is how we must forgive. It is not enough that we pardon. Forgiveness requires that we treat the offending party as if they had never harmed us. This is what makes forgiveness so difficult for many of us. Every instinct within us wants to harbour bitterness against those who have offended us. When we do this, however, we forfeit the benefits of unfettered fellowship with God.


            I think C.S. Lewis is right when he says, ‘To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.’


            Walter Wink tells the account of two peacemakers who visited a group of Polish Christians ten years after the end of World War II. ‘Would you be willing to meet with other Christians from West Germany?’ the peacemakers asked. ‘They want to ask forgiveness for what Germany did to Poland during the war.’


            At first there was silence. Then one Pole spoke up, ‘What you are asking is impossible. Each stone of Warsaw is soaked in Polish blood! We cannot forgive!’


            Before the group parted, however, they said the Lord’s Prayer together. When they reached the words ‘Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive . . . ,’ everyone stopped praying. Tension swelled in the room. The Pole who had previously spoken up said, ‘I must say yes to you. I could no more pray the Our Father, I could no longer call myself a Christian, if I refuse to forgive. Humanly speaking, I cannot do it, but God will give us His strength!” (Yancey, What’s So Amazing About Grace?, 123).


            As you bring to mind certain individuals whom you are struggling to forgive, you may despair in your ability to ever forgive them. That’s a normal feeling, because, humanly speaking, we cannot do it . . . but God will give us His strength to forgive, if only we ask this of Him.


            Bow humbly before Him, and He will give you strength to forgive others. Bow humbly before Him, and He will forgive you. God’s forgiveness is not something we can do without. Thankfully, God is eager to forgive those who turn to Him. Amen.